In most sports, whether at the high school, college, or professional level, fans take pride in helping their team to a home court/field advantage through cheering and chanting. Without having to participate on a team, fans still have the ability to affect the outcome of a game through their efforts, which can often rally a team and lend to a sense of camaraderie. For example, at Arizona State University, several basketball fans have begun choreographing distractions while the opposing team shoots free throws, recently getting American swimmer and gold medalist Michael Phelps to help with their “curtain of distraction.” In football, Seattle Seahawks president Mike McCormack decided to retire jersey number 12 as a tribute to Seahawks fans and their contributions to the team’s success in the 1980’s. Similarly, Texas A&M decided to trademark “the 12th man” in honor of its devoted fanbase. Fans’ lasting positive impact, however, can quickly become tarnished with some inappropriate actions and emotional reactions during games. In efforts to reduce the number of innappropriate comments, cheers, and altercations from fans, recent regulations by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association may lead to the ultimate eradication of cheering as we know it.
After observing the conduct of fans over the course of several high school basketball games this past winter, the WIAA decided to publish a Sportsmanship Reference Guide, outlining the actions that athletes and fans could no longer take part in during sporting events. Students are no longer allowed to chant sayings that, “are clearly intended to taunt or disrespect,” such as “Airball!,” “Scoreboard!,” and “You can’t do that!” What makes these recent regulations surprising is that they were not a result of any specific event or accident, but rather the WIAA felt the need to ban common phrases and cheers that fans have been chanting for years. In doing so, the WIAA spurred a debate on the argument of freedom of speech versus censorship. In the aftermath of the regulations, a Wisconsin student athlete even received a suspension for his critical reaction on Twitter.
Over the years fans have had their fair share of inappropriate signs, cheers, and even pranks, including the “WE SUCK” trick Yale students pulled off at the 2004 Harvard/Yale football game. Actions like this or shouting sheer profanity or vulgarities obviously shouldn’t be tolerated, but something as harmless as the word “Airball!” after a shot has no right to be reprimanded. This type of cheering has been a part of sports since their creation and stands as a part of sports culture. High school and college institutions now feel the need to take action on such trivial matters simply out of fear of offending someone. Not only does this inanity detract from the rights and liberties of citizens, but it contributes to a culture today where people feel the need to regulate things simply in fear of facing an awkward or difficult situation.
Though the athletic directors at Collegiate have yet to place bans on any specific phrases, students say they have been asked to limit the excessive use of certain ones. For example, several students are reminded to use the “Airball!” chant no more than three times in a row. Diehard Cougars fan Penn Mayhew (‘16) commented, “Part of a good defense is the fans. This is baloney. It is taking away the atmosphere at basketball games.” Other students are outraged by the idea of censorship in athletics, including Jackson Berling (‘16) who says, “The basketball court is not a safe space.”
In limiting what fans can say to opposing players, schools are not only taking away from the fan experience, but also taking away a major aspect of any game: mental toughness. Collegiate fan Daniel Makepeace (’16) says, “It builds character. If you never tell the other team how bad they are, they will never have the experience of overcoming adversity.” It is this idea that has helped several players to success, including, for example, NBA legend and arguably greatest three-point shooter of all time Reggie Miller. Miller relied heavily on trash talking as a way to get an edge over his opponents, and in doing so he was able to gain a mental toughness that he could rely on at critical times. Having experienced the effects of cheers both as a player and a fan in high school, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers despises the idea of banning chants, saying “I don’t think that [high school competition] warrants censorship. What are we telling our kids, that freedom of speech doesn’t exist? And any type of negative comment, you’re going to get somebody in trouble for? I just don’t agree with that.”
With so much negative feedback from both fans and players, it is unclear whether the WIAA regulations will ever take effect. Either way, the future of cheering and freedom of speech in general will continue to be an ongoing debate.
Featured image credit: Flickr user Taylor McKnight.
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